Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez (Melbourne University Press, 1999).
A Review by Adam Aitken
© all rights reserved
Revised version of the article published in Australia Humanities Review in 2000.
A prodigy whose life was cut short – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, fame, transgression, a great talent for both brilliant poetry and self promotion, set in the 60s. Dransfield has been all things to all people who read poetry. This six hundred page book will stir it up again. Who is Michael Dransfield? How does his poetry stand up after almost half a century?
I think it is not Dobrez’s ambition to answer the first question with any finality and quite clearly she hasn’t set out to be an authority on the question of Dransfield’s poetic abilities. The intended audience for this book seeks readers interested in an interesting life. This is not the kind of biography which defends the poetry in any formal terms, but the poetry is used to illustrate the life as a many mansioned room of intertextuality. The danger Adamson sees is that Dobrez puts too much store on the poetry as an illumination of the life. He writes: Dransfield didn’t write confessional poetry and it is misleading to look too closely into the poetry for clues that might reveal something about his life. He thought Lowell’s work in that mode was prehistoric. On the other hand, Dobrez claims among Dransfield’s great influences Sylvia Plath and the critic A. Alvarez, a strong proponent of confessional poetry. Either way, Dransfield wrote much poetry that does illustrate his life, though good poetry it may not always be. Dobrez finds that Dransfield pirated his own diaries for poems, and there is ample reference to real people and events.
Adamson reads Dransfield again and finds that his memories of the poet are not real: ‘The poet I knew in the late 60s and early 70s doesn’t seem as real.’ Felicity Holland’s review focuses on the biography as a detective thriller with no final revelation (HEAT 14, March 2000). She adds that ‘[p]lural biography is a rarity – biographies which ease contradictions and create an illusion of subjectivity are not.’ Similarly, Adamson re-inscribes Dransfield as a plural subject and an unreal memory – Dransfield was all things to people who read poetry, and his poetic practice was inseparable from his life:
Dransfield loved pretense and used it in his life and work. He was a true
symbolist – he invented a life for himself along with his wonderful poetry.
This imagined life (Dobrez calls it ‘imagineering’) was woven through his
existence. He embroidered everything, including his correspondence and his
conversation and relationships, with his imagination. His existence itself wove
in and out of reality and other people who weren’t poets found it difficult to
tell what was really happening in his life. (Adamson)
I would add Dobrez’s detailed and wide-ranging biography shows that Dransfield is and was all things to people who don’t read his poetry. The real value of this biography is in the way conservative Australian attitudes and standards of the late ‘sixties are revealed as one cause of Dransfield’s self-destruction; and the point is Dransfield didn’t commit suicide or intend to die from overdose. There’s no proof he wanted to commit suicide and in fact he died from septicemia contracted from a dirty needle he was using to inject morphine, which he was taking to alleviate severe pain caused by an accident. In short, to many he was a drug addict, a draft dodger, a university dropout and a hippy. No doubt, in Australia during the Moratorium years, to be any or all of these identities was an invitation to abuse and rejection, as in a sense they still are today. As a reaction and in a gesture of solidarity with the Left, Dransfield used poetry as a lyrical protest medium and he often wrote to protest. For support he therefore gravitated towards the Generation of ’68 community of small press publishers and writers.
But we must be wary of turning Dransfield into a poster boy of the Left, as he clearly sought approval from conservative poets like A.D Hope. Dobrez’s detailed research suggests that Dransfield was nourished by the loose and internally riven poetry scene despite its lack of funds for producing books for mass circulation – indeed a defining parameter was a cynicism about tying poetry to any form of capitalist profit-making or ‘professionalism’. But Dobrez shows that Dransfield was not a slave to counter-culture (which he mimicked when it suited); he wanted very much to be feted by the ‘establishment’ of the time, and if not adored by it, at least tolerated. Dransfield was delighted that one of his poems found its way into a school text. The slightly older generation born in the ‘thirties and earlier, whose leading lights were Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall, R.F. Brissenden, Geoffrey Dutton and others, is crucial in generating the reputation that Dransfield needed to carry on being a professional poet.
Dobrez develops an Oedipal approach to explain Dransfield’s breakdown and lack of confidence in the face of older authority figures. Dransfield was too freaked out to launch his book at the Adelaide Festival, fearing that A.D. Hope would urbanely tear him to shreds in public. Dransfield was constantly unsure of how his Father and Grandfather – a Gallipoli veteran – would receive Drug Poems, and his craving for their acceptance may have added to the strain brought on by contradictory loyalties and generational differences. In fact Dransfield registered for the draft, though seemed to have only a vague idea why he did so. Dobrez ties in the psychology of such gestures with Dransfield’s fascination with his own family’s medieval roots, symbolised by a gruesome signet ring he wore consisting of a Turk’s head impaled on a sword.
Dransfield was acutely aware of what is called in ‘nineties parlance ‘marketing’. He had a strong sense of what was glamorous and saleable in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Through a description of parallel artistic activity in the music and visual arts scene, Dobrez shows that Dransfield wanted desperately to become the first Australian poet to become a pop idol. Perhaps his most destructive delusion was that he could control the mirror games of the market at that time. In order to sell his book Drug Poems at a time when all books had to be checked by the censorship board, he could project the image of the drug poet to a public he thought wanted to read about drugs and drug taking. The problem was that in 1972 his book didn’t sell, and in the end it was the Commonwealth Literature Fund that baled him out with a Young Writers grant. Then, as now, poetry by young Australian poets didn’t sell.
Dobrez brings in Fredric Jameson and Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the Gaze to reinforce her notion of Dransfield as a mass of contradictions: he was at various times and all at once the Imagineer, the purple Prince, the Troubadour, the Unrequited lover, the Edwardian squire, and the Keats of Hippiedom. All of these are well-known masculine roles in which the poet/Magus is in control of the Gaze and its object. But one of Dobrez’s most interesting chapters reveals Dransfield as a sympathiser in the house of a Female semiotic as practised by his lover Hilary Burns, a painter who specialised in childhood visions and the power of the Gaze. The period of life in a Paddington Loft and on various rural properties constitutes for Dransfield a growing female aestheticism, which was solipsistic and illusionistic but also a happy and creative period, during which Dransfield wrote his most enduring poems. Dransfield was also extremely close and relaxed with his mother and sister, in whose house he fell into a coma under mysterious circumstances.
In the end he became at least one of his projections: the Posthumous Poet. For me Dobrez’s text conjure the ultimate question: not how did he die, but what would he be doing now, if he had lived? Far from the notion of the drugged out hippie, Dobrez’s narrative shows Dransfield was developing life-preserving skills in a time of late-capitalism, and became adept at property speculation at a time suburban baby-boomers were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘normal’ lifestyle choices of baby-boomerism. Dransfield’s rural experiment was a precursor of the ABC comedy series Sea-Change, Dransfield consumed ’60s culture better than anyone, and, according to Dobrez, this consumption included the re-appropriation of a ’50s dream of home. Dransfield’s well-known ‘Courland-Penders’ poems are a fabrication of an ancestral home haunted by ghosts and nostalgia for an aristocratic ideal. According to a friend, Richard Hopkinson, Dransfield ‘had visions of magical properties just waiting to be bought for negligible sums! He wrote to every country council in NSW inquiring about their next auctions’ (D, 436). In Dransfield’s postmodern scale of values, there was little difference between the visionary pleasures of drugs and the pleasures of living in a restored colonial mansion in Cobargo. In fact, they went together. However, despite one successful sale, the reality of real estate brought Dransfield down: a) the properties suffered problems with sewerage, wiring etc.; and b) Dransfield could hardly afford the mortgage. As Adamson asserts, the 60s is a decade no different to any other era ‘when poverty hovers above the rented Loft.’
Was Dransfield an operator? According to Dobrez, ‘he was ready to write advertising copy if the occasion called for it, as he was to write poems; he might have fitted very easily into an emerging commercial culture in which value is determined by image’ (441).
The main strain I have with this biography is that a life could be so contradictory and provisional, yet Dobrez’s discussion of postmodern theory never quite gets off the ground. This is a biography that constantly reflects on itself and invokes theory as a defence against those who expect biography to be recuperative/and or morally certain. I’m not sure if there’s too much theory, or too little. On the question of life’s provisionality I feel disquiet. Dransfield’s lives were labyrinthine and for Dobrez they are a proto-postmodern phenomenon. Why then has lifestyle/marketing theory become so functionalist? One expects a lifestyle to be consistent, otherwise its unmarketable as a ‘lifestyle’ in the first place. Whether or not one can or cannot close the narrative, I get the impression that there are mutually exclusive Dransfields vying for control of the biography, but the theory is too certain of itself, as if Dobrez was trying to fulfill the academic need to push a persuasive argument, like a PhD thesis that needs a closed conclusion. For Dransfield: case dismissed.
Much of Dransfield’s life can never be proved either way. Was Dransfield beholden to drug dealers in Crown Street? Was he stabbed in Kings Cross? Did a policeman really try to run him down on a country road? There was the talented and charming man Adamson remembers, never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he had been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. This suggests a man who knew himself and what he wanted (i.e. the operator).
The other strain is the symptom of the unflinching way Dobrez details the ugly mind/body of Dransfield, the rejected man and lover, the velvet urinal, the pin-prick, the victim of multiple accidents with cars and motorbikes, who buys drugs to relieve pain. Adamson criticises the book for giving the impression that Dransfield was addicted to heroin. But Dobrez never definitively commits herself to this conclusion. This is theoretically consistent, for there is no final authority to say whether Dransfield was an addict. Still, it is annoying that this is repeatedly suggested. Perhaps the gap between the reality and the text should remain mysterious and unresolved, but as Adamson reveals, readers will continue to make judgements, whether moral or amoral, no matter how theoretically committed and fastidiously detached the biographer.
Here, biography of a celebrity risks becoming voyeuristic, as if the biographer and her readers were attempting to penetrate an exotic body. As readers we inhabit a morgue of illusion, rumour and lies. As a post-baby-boomer reading this, I also confront my own resentments and fraught relationship with my antecedents. I’m not sure I would have liked Dransfield the operator. There is Dransfield the prima-donna who reacts to an adverse review by threatening the reviewer with ‘a lead pipe / across your throat.’
I agree with Holland’s judgement of Michael Dransfield’s Lives as a work that takes no singular moral vantage point. It is not biography of recuperation, nor is it hagiography. It is however clinical when it needs to be, for example, the description of Dransfield’s manner of dying. It is as fair as it could be to Dransfield’s peers, relatives and friends. As Adamson testifies, it is a biography that is ‘successful in that, as one reads it, you are compelled by its narrative to reread the poetry.’ One hopes that readers will go on to do just that.
Adam Aitken is the author of six collections of poetry including Romeo & Juliet in Subtitles (Brandl & Schlesinger), and Eighth Habitation (Giramondo).